Some Southern Baptist ministers take to blogs to question leadership
Conservative Southern Baptists used to be more or less an amen corner, cheering one another on as they battled denomination moderates over such issues as women in the pulpit and whether the Bible must be taken as literally true.But a generation after conservatives began to control the Southern Baptist Convention, they are finding it harder and harder to stick together. Disputes over doctrine and power-sharing have come to the fore.
And bringing them there – with a flourish – have been a handful of youngish conservative pastors employing blogs.
Baptist bloggers have become a force in the last year, generating large numbers of hits on their Web sites as they post comments – some would say, as they air dirty laundry – about the SBC, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, with 16.3 million members.
The bloggers’ rise coincides with the first seriously contested election for the SBC presidency in more than decade. Three candidates have announced, and more could emerge before next week’s annual gathering of delegates (“messengers,” Baptists call them) in Greensboro, N.C.
“Not to be presumptuous, but I think we have helped shape the debate,” said Marty Duren, a Buford, Ga., pastor and blogger. “Issues that we began discussing as far back as last summer are now part of interviews with candidates.”
Benjamin Cole, a 30-year-old pastor at Parkview Baptist Church in Arlington, is even more of a true believer. He calls Internet communication the “Gutenberg press of the new Reformation.”
Anyone who doubts that Mr. Cole wants reform should consider one of his recent blog postings, in which he compared the Southern Baptist Convention to the ethically anemic presidential administration of Warren G. Harding.
“The Southern Baptist Convention is rank with nepotism, cronyism, favoritism and a network of political spoils distribution that would make Old Warren blush with shame,” he wrote.
Across denominations, bloggers are having an effect, said Quentin Schultze, a professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“The good news is that blogging is getting more people interested in denominational processes and issues,” Dr. Schultze said. “The bad news is that denominationally oriented blogging tends to gravitate toward unkind language, unsupported accusations and nasty threats.”
Most pastors, he said, are as wary of generating controversy through blogs as they are of offending worshippers from the pulpit. For those relatively few willing to speak out – usually not part of the denominational leadership – blogs can be “almost like a kind of catharsis,” Dr. Schultze said.
He added that conservative Southern Baptist bloggers are, for the most part, civil and serious. They generally avoid what he considers the offensive practice of posting anonymously. What’s more, Dr. Schultze thinks Baptist bloggers are breaking ground.
“The SBC has become the first denomination to shift institutional politics significantly from letter-writing, phone calls and conventions to the public Internet. … Those who hold denominational power have got to be concerned.”
The truth market
Mr. Duren, 42, is a pioneer among Baptist bloggers, having started sbcoutpost.com, way back in April 2005. The Georgia pastor said his motive was simply to encourage discussion about the SBC’s future.
When seeking information on how to start a blog, he went – where else? – to the Internet. “You don’t need to know computerese,” he said. He chose the blog’s name because it suggested someone on the lookout.
Mr. Duren has posted hundreds of his own and other pastors’ thoughts about the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention. Here’s an excerpt from an early entry, hitting on the dissident conservatives’ theme that the denomination has become too isolated.
“I have had the great joy of spending several weeks of the past two years in conferences hosted by various different denominational stripes: one evangelical Lutheran, one nondenominational, one Methodist. … As we sing, pray, study and learn, I am enriched by the differences between us and realize over and over again that Southern Baptists have not cornered the market on truth – God has.”
He went on to say that although he considers himself a bedrock theological conservative – “a biblical inerrantist, and a missions-promoting, Jesus-loving pastor” – when he attends meetings of other Baptists, “I feel like a stranger in a strange land. And though I know it [the SBC] must change to reach generations to come, fewer and fewer younger evangelical-type leaders have any confidence that it will.”
Most entries on Mr. Duren’s blog are hastier. But they do tend to focus on denominational concerns, such as the recent resignation of top officials at the SBC’s North American Mission Board after an official investigation into extravagant spending.
On a good, newsy day, Mr. Duren will get 1,500 visits to his site. He recently had his 100,000th hit.
“The increasing numbers of readers and commentators indicate that the issues are of concern to a huge number of people,” he said.
Mr. Duren’s site links to many others, including one started by Wade Burleson, perhaps the biggest name in Southern Baptist blogging. He’s a 44-year-old former president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, and a member of the SBC’s International Mission Board.
On that board he’s often a dissident. For example, he opposes new policies that require foreign missionary candidates to refrain from such charismatic Christian practices as speaking in tongues, and to be baptized in the full immersion Baptist way.
“If we continue to narrow the definition of what it means to be Southern Baptist, we’ll end up being an isolated sect within Christendom. I’m trying to prevent that,” said Mr. Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist in Enid, Okla., in a phone interview.
Earlier this year, Mr. Burleson’s daily postings about the foreign missionary board caused his fellow trustees to seek to have him removed. When fellow Baptist bloggers and others rallied to his defense, prompting stories in the denominational press, the board backed down.
“When they sought to remove me, that’s when my blog skyrocketed,” he said, adding that he has had about 190,000 hits in the blog’s first seven months.
Mr. Cole, the Arlington pastor, has an edgier online voice. His blog has zeroed in on Paige Patterson, a longtime leader of conservatives within the SBC and president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Mr. Cole describes himself as a former student and protégé of Dr. Patterson, but one who grew disillusioned with his leadership.
In a recent entry as intricate as the “begats” of the book of Genesis, Mr. Cole lays out how he believes Dr. Patterson, as SBC president from 1998 to 2000, used appointments to consolidate power and squelch doctrinal dissent.
“Paige has lost the ability to see where his personal kingdom stops and the kingdom of God begins,” Mr. Cole said in an interview.
Dr. Patterson, reached by phone, said he would not dignify with comment the specifics of Mr. Cole’s charges of cronyism and nepotism. But he did say, “I have spent my entire life in behalf of the denomination, to call it back to the faith of its fathers. … My appointments all reflected that, to the best of my ability.”
‘A new day’
Could a handful of bloggers really be altering the course of the Southern Baptist Convention?
Well, lots of other developments have been churning the denomination, including the controversies with its International and North American Mission boards.
But when Arkansas megachurch pastor Ronnie Floyd announced for president of the SBC, and promptly got the endorsement of key inside figures such as Dr. Patterson, Mr. Burleson used his blog to discuss the need for another candidate.
Frank Page of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., did get into the race, and now there’s a third pastor running, Jerry Sutton, of Two Rivers Baptist church in Nashville, Tenn.
Among Dr. Sutton’s first acts after announcing was to give an interview to Mr. Duren’s blog, addressing such inside issues as the place of Calvinism in Baptist theology.
Not surprisingly, the Baptist blogs are full of news and analysis about the presidential race and about the race for first vice president, which also is hotly contested.
Mr. Duren believes blogs have helped bring about “a new day” in SBC life. He acknowledges that they are a novelty, and that the passage of time and an increase in the number of blogs could diminish his blog’s influence.
“Whatever role God allows me to play will be fine,” he said. “I’m very thankful for the influence he has given me right now.”
Mr. Duren, Mr. Burleson and Mr. Cole all plan to be blogging live next week from Greensboro.
SEEKING TO LEAD THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION
The Southern Baptist Convention will have its first seriously contested presidential election in more than a decade when delegates – “messengers,” Baptists call them – gather for their annual meeting Tuesday and Wednesday in Greensboro, N.C.
Here are the basics on the three announced candidates as of late this week.
RONNIE FLOYD, 50, is pastor of the 16,000-member First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark. He’s a native of Gonzales, Texas, and earned an undergraduate degree from Howard Payne University and master of divinity and doctor of ministry degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. He’s a past chairman of the SBC executive committee, and has frequently appeared on Christian TV networks.
“Orthodoxy packaged in innovation” is what Dr. Floyd promises if elected.
FRANK PAGE, 53, is pastor of the 4,300-member First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C. He grew up in Greensboro, N.C., earning his undergraduate degree from Gardner-Webb University, and his master of divinity degree and Ph.D. from Southwestern Seminary. Along the way he has been a pastor in Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas, and at Gambrell Street Baptist Church in Fort Worth.
A self-described “big-tent conservative,” Dr. Page promises to broaden the talent pool for SBC appointments. “For too long the same names have come up over and over.”
JERRY SUTTON, 54, is pastor of the 6,800-member Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nasvhille, Tenn. He’s a Mobile, Ala., native, who earned his undergraduate degree at the University of South Alabama, and his master of divinity degree and Ph.D. from Southwestern. He’s the author of the book The Baptist Reformation: The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, and he’s currently the SBC’s first vice president.
“I can relate to a lot of different segments of the SBC,” he told the Baptist Press. “Right now there is a lot of confusion, and I think I can help bring clarity.”
Benjamin Cole – Pastor of Parkview Baptist in Arlington
Wade Burleson – Pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla.
David Rogers – Missionary, Spain
Marty Duren – Pastor, New Bethany Baptist, Buford, Ga.
Art Rogers – Pastor in Russellville, Ky.
Tad Thompson – Pastor of Harvard Avenue Baptist Church, Siloam Springs, Ark.